It was all the positive reviews I’d read and an advert for the recent film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon that spurred me on to read this book – not that I really needed much encouragement. Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s account of her time hiking the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) in America.
The memoir opens with Cheryl’s mother discovering she has cancer and has a limited time left to live. We hear of Cheryl’s desperation to be with her mother at all times, and her struggle to cope when her mum passes away. Her marriage disintegrates and her family drifts apart without their mother and wife. These chapters of the book are very poignant and her writing is extremely powerful.
The book then moves to Cheryl taking an almost spontaneous decision to hike the trail. Cheryl’s decision made me think about the power of change and the need for us to take control over our lives – Cheryl was hit with a tremendous blow with the illness and death of her mother, paired with the breakdown of her marriage. I read her decision to take her trip as a means of taking back some control over her life, and to push herself even further, because what did she have to lose?
She goes into hiking the PCT completely unprepared, having never hiked long-distance before, with no training (according to the book, many other hikers train thoroughly for the hike). This made me feel slightly exasperated with Cheryl at times, but as the book progresses, her lack of preparation makes her more endearing because she overcomes those obstacles she never accounted for. I sometimes saw myself in her: I imagined myself packing a ridiculously heavy rucksack, cramming it full of things I might need just in case, like she did. I found myself rooting for Cheryl throughout the book, wanting her to make it to the end of the trail. I would have liked more descriptions of where she was hiking because I sometimes found it difficult to picture where she walking and what she was encountering. However, I think overall this book is more of an account of a personal journey rather than one of travel. She may have visited beautiful places and battled the limitations of her body (which she writes about wonderfully) but the whole reason for her walking the PCT was a personal journey – to overcome those demons she was fighting.
And it’s for this reason that I think Wild is a very human story. While it’s set in the context of Cheryl walking the trail – and, of course, this is a huge part of the book – ultimately it’s about her and her struggles and overcoming them. It’s a story of human strength.
There is lots in the book about being alone: her family disintegrating after her mother died, and Cheryl hiking the trail where, for huge stretches of time, she’s completely alone in a way that she, and I suspect many of us, haven’t been before.
And then this solitude is broken when she meets people hiking the trail or in the campsites she visits to pick up her supply boxes. Apart from a couple of exceptions, Cheryl is greeted with kindness and generosity by the people she meets on her journey, from others hiking the trail to campsite attendants and passersby. Some of these people touch her life for ever, and even though she may never see them again, have an impact on her. So, while the story is about Cheryl and her being alone and her battles, it’s also about human beings.
Wild made me believe I could don a huge backpack and go on a hike if I wanted to. Cheryl is an inspiring woman and, in turn, so is the book. It’s a powerful and emotive memoir which shows human strength, both physical and mental.